Curriculum content for pupils with severe learning difficulties must be addressed

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published an evaluation of the seven aspects of engagement assessment.

Within the assessment, it details its plans for a new approach to statutory assessment for pupils with severe learning difficulties as well as profound and multiple learning difficulties (SLD and PMLD), to better match their needs and stages of development.

It was identified in the 2016 Rochford Review that for most children in primary education, statutory assessments are subject based and in the form of a national curriculum test at the end of KS1 and KS2.

The review clearly highlighted the concerns regarding children with SLDs and PMLDs and how many were not ready for the level of subject-specific learning in the national curriculum. The tests were not relevant or accessible to them and did not reflect the non-linear and unique patterns of their learning and progress.

As a result from the review, it is clear that there needs to be a new way in accessing cognition and learning for children with PMLDs and SLDs so they are more effectively included in national systems of statutory assessment.

The Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project developed research to suggest that pupils who are not engaged in subject-specific learning and are working at P-scales one to four should have their development in cognition and learning assessed against the seven aspects of engagement: responsiveness, curiosity, discovery, anticipation, persistence, initiation and investigation.

The DfE will be implementing the seven aspects of the engagement approach as statutory in the 2019/20 academic year, subject to a national pilot evaluation.

Head of the Centre for Education Research and Innovation at the University of Derby, Deborah Robinson, said: “In my view, we have reason to be pleased by this announcement. It validates a powerful tool for both formative and statutory assessment and centralises engagement as a key component for learning.

“But I also have some serious concerns centred on the content-free nature of the seven aspects. Special schools prefer to anchor assessment of progress in a curriculum. Though such curricula are built flexibly around the individual and are not based on the traditional notion of ‘subject’, their content matters to schools as an expression of inclusion in education.”

The DfE recognises these concerns and has reiterated that the seven aspects approach is to be reinforced by schools in the context of a broad and balanced curriculum that is effectively tailored to the needs of their pupils. Thus meaning the systems that are currently being used to assess pupils continues to be important, as methods for formative and summative assessment.